Thursday, September 5, 2013
Moving Beyond Powerpoint to Engage Advocacy Students
Suparna Malempati is an associate professor of law at Atlanta's John Marshall Law School, where she teaches trial advocacy. This is her first guest piece for our blog, and we hope there are many more to come.
When I began teaching Trial Advocacy a few years ago, I structured my class in a manner similar to the NITA programs. I began class with a fairly short lecture (generally 20 minutes) about the day’s topic. I then either demonstrated the technique being taught or showed a video clip. I engaged the students after the lecture and demonstration with an exercise. I thought that to be the best manner of organizing the class. I spent hours preparing power point slides for each lecture, and summoned all my talents of effective presentation. After all, I was a trial attorney. I was able to engage jurors with brilliant closing arguments that lasted hours. Of course I could hold the attention of students for a 20-minute lecture.
And my lectures were fabulous - they covered the law, the ethics, the techniques, and provided examples. I had wonderful power point presentations and handouts to accompany my lectures. It seemed like the perfect structure for a 90-minute Trial Advocacy class.
But something was wrong. I noticed that about two weeks into every semester, I began to lose some students during the lecture portion of every class. I saw the look – the glazed eyes, the lack of focus, the faces of students who were disengaged and bored. Bored? How could they be bored with me, the consummate trial lawyer, as their professor? It was unimaginable.
I also realized that on lecture days, the students would not read the text assignments at all. They showed up in class, sat in their seats, and zoned completely out. So, I tried harder. I thought of war stories; I incorporated jokes; I added visual aids. I even banned laptops. But still, I would see the look in students’ eyes – the gaze of thoughts that were far from the material I was covering.
Over time, I realized the students were bored because they were not engaged. Lectures from professors, no matter how fabulous the professor may be, do not engage students. Power point presentations, no matter how elaborate, do not engage students. That’s true in my Legal Writing class, it’s true in my Criminal Procedure class, and I realized, it’s true in my Trial Advocacy class.
So I tried something different. I began to ask questions. Rather than explaining direct examination to the students, I asked them about direct examination. I designed questions to illustrate the same points I wanted them to gain from my lectures. It was an amazing transformation. I could see the eyes darting back and forth, the brains working, the students sitting up in their seats, thinking, listening, and learning. And even more amazing, they began looking at the text and reading prior to class.
I still use my power point presentations on occasion. I use them after some dialogue with students in order to reinforce the discussion points. The students drive the discussion with me as their guide, and we cover the necessary material in a more effective manner.
I am loathe to use the term “Socratic” because it seems to hold different meanings for different people. I think dialogue-based pedagogy better describes what I try to do in my Trial Advocacy course now. How does that work? How does that fit in a skills class? What do I mean “ask students questions”? How do I ask students about trial techniques?
The difference between the NITA method of teaching, which is designed for seminar style continuing legal education courses for lawyers, and the law school classroom is the length of the course. During a typical fourteen week semester, the students become complacent with lectures from a professor. Lectures are a form of passive learning, which is not nearly as effective as an engaged classroom. Students are engaged when they are expected to speak before their professor and classmates. The dialogue-based method, as opposed to a lecture, also provides a warm-up for the drills and exercises that follow the instructional portion of the Trial Advocacy class.
When I walked into Trial Advocacy this semester, I introduced myself and proceeded to ask the students, “What is advocacy?” I received all sorts of answers. The students had not actually thought about it or even looked up the term. We all think we know what advocacy means. We all think we know what trial advocacy means. During the discussion, I led the students to think about what differentiates effective from ineffective legal advocacy. We discussed ethical issues that arise when representing clients, the three golden rules of trial work (prepare, prepare, prepare), and the absolute necessity of the basic lawyering skill of applying law to facts. That discussion led into the introductory reading about case analysis.
Although dialogue-based pedagogy for skills courses seems awkward or out of place, I encourage all skills professors to try it. Put the power points and lectures to rest one day and create a series of questions that guide students to the relevant conclusion, principle, or concept. The class not only becomes more engaging for the students, but also more fun to teach.
I plan to further the use of the dialogue method in the critique portion of my Trial Advocacy class.
This week when a student performs his or her direct examination, I am going to call randomly on a second student. I will refer to a portion of the direct and ask the second student to tell the class what was wrong with the question or questions and what could be done differently. We will see how that works. But I have a feeling that it will be fabulous, engaging, and effective.